News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Virus-time anxiety increased on devices

What’s stressing you out more: the coronavirus, or thinking about it all the time? The Internet, TV, news, and smartphones help people stay informed and feel connected during the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, there are side effects, including anxiety and addiction.

We turned to Catherine Price for advice. The founder of the Screen/Life Balance program and author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” Price is producing a series of #QuarantineChats on From the confines of her apartment, she recently explored “compulsively checking the news.”

Price researches the physiology behind our behaviors, so we can have more control over how we spend our time — and how we feel.

“Basically, when we’re stressed out, the part of our brain that’s in charge of rational thought goes completely offline,” explained Price.

“It’s kind of unfortunate. In the moments when you might need it most, the prefrontal cortex — the area of your brain that’s in charge of this — is like, ‘See ya later! I’m going to go hide under a rock. I’m gonna let your primitive brain take over.’”

The primitive part of the brain mostly operates from a fight-or-flight response mode. It “seeks out quick fixes to feelings of anxiety,” according to Price.

For example, your rational brain might think meditation, prayer, or exercise sounds like a good idea. Price said, “Your more primitive brain is like, ‘That sounds hard. Why don’t I just have a drink?’ Our brains are going to seek out rewards, something that will trigger the brain to release the chemical dopamine.”

Dopamine produces a temporary feeling of goodness, a mini-high. Common “quick fixes” for dopamine rewards include alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. Most people understand that these substances cause health problems and can lead to serious addictions that destroy lives.

“Alcohol and drugs most definitely activate trigger dopamine circuitry in your brain,” said Price.

“Interestingly, the news does too,” she said, “because novelty is a really big dopamine trigger. So every time you check the news and find something new waiting for you — which you will, every single time, because it’s the news! — your brain is going to release a little bit of dopamine.”

On a quick-fix level, that dopamine hit makes us want to repeat the behavior. It doesn’t matter if the news is unhelpful or makes you stressed out or breeds even more anxiety.

Price said, “Your brain does not care. It’s just like, ‘Oh, I got a hit of that new stuff. I’m going to do it again.’”

Today’s newsfeeds and social media apps are built by designers and engineers trained in provoking that dopamine response. Interface design elements — scrolling and “pulling” the bottom of a phone to refresh the screen — work in tandem with content algorithms to keep users coming back. This produces more advertising revenue for media companies.

Price believes it makes sense that we would try to relieve our anxiety by turning to the news.

“We’re hoping to find answers,” she said. “We’re hoping they’re going to tell us the pandemic is slowing down, a vaccine has been discovered, or that a common throat lozenge is the cure.”

Looking for a concrete answer and not finding it causes more anxiety. This is “sending our rational brains even further under that rock,” according to Price.

To crawl out and start feeling better, people can use solid techniques for reducing device and news engagement. (See “Seven Steps to Sanity"). Upcoming issues of The Nugget will feature special advice for families and kids who are sheltering in place.


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